2018-05-11 / Front Page

Danger: Willard Beach access

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Beachfront resident John McKee, left, points out an area of interest to South Portland City Councilor Claude Morgan, center, during a city council site walk Tuesday May 8, at Willard Beach. More than 50 people tagged along as the council reviewed safety problems with a set of stairs and access ramp leading from Deake Street to the beach. The 50-year-old concrete ramp, seen in the foreground, has been undermined by erosion, leaving it hanging about two feet in the air and in danger of collapse. (Duke Harrington photo) Beachfront resident John McKee, left, points out an area of interest to South Portland City Councilor Claude Morgan, center, during a city council site walk Tuesday May 8, at Willard Beach. More than 50 people tagged along as the council reviewed safety problems with a set of stairs and access ramp leading from Deake Street to the beach. The 50-year-old concrete ramp, seen in the foreground, has been undermined by erosion, leaving it hanging about two feet in the air and in danger of collapse. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Following a site walk and 90-minute workshop Tuesday, May 8, city plans have flip-flopped for how to handle an unsafe access point to Willard Beach.

At issue is a concrete access ramp that leads from the end of Deake Street to the beach. Undermined by years of erosion, it now hovers about two feet in the air at the beach end, making it dangerous for toddlers and other youngsters drawn by its inviting cave-like allure.


About 50 people turned out for a city council site walk to Willard Beach on Tuesday, May 8, to inspect safety issues with stairs and an access ramp leading from Deake Street down to the beach, including, front row from left, Councilor Claude Morgan, Sebago Technics Senior Vice President Owens McCullough, Councilors Maxine Beecher, Kate Lewis, and Eben Rose, and Willard Street resident John Murphy. (Duke Harrington photo) About 50 people turned out for a city council site walk to Willard Beach on Tuesday, May 8, to inspect safety issues with stairs and an access ramp leading from Deake Street down to the beach, including, front row from left, Councilor Claude Morgan, Sebago Technics Senior Vice President Owens McCullough, Councilors Maxine Beecher, Kate Lewis, and Eben Rose, and Willard Street resident John Murphy. (Duke Harrington photo) There’s also a set of slate steps, the bottom two of which washed away in the last year, as well as a stone retaining wall that has pitched precariously toward the sand, in apparent danger of collapse.

The ramp, steps and wall were built, according to various sources, sometime between the mid-1960s and early 1970s. Some say the ramp was originally used by fishermen to haul their catch up to waiting trucks on Deake Street, back when the area was still a working waterfront. But Brigham Street resident Russ Lunt, who retired in 2012 following 34 years with the city’s public works department, said he believes the ramp was actually installed as a sort of sluiceway, to guide stormwater runoff from the street.

At any rate, the ramp eventually got fitted with an iron pipe railing and has served for decades as a means for beachgoers to get canoes, kayaks and other watercraft – not to mention children, dogs, and picnic baskets – down to the water’s edge.

That the area is in disrepair is hardly a news flash. But it was not until City Manager Scott Morelli took the city’s top job last year that the site really got on the radar. Thanks to a resident complaint about the condition of the ramp, Morelli initiated a series of neighborhood meetings to solicit feedback from those who live nearby on a proposed fix.

That resulted in plans to repair the steps while leaving the ramp to a later date, following completion of a Willard Beach Master Plan.

“Residents in attendance seemed to concur with this approach,” Morelli said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Given a ballpark cost of $300,000 to replace the ramp, the city contented itself for now with placing a jersey barrier at its top end, to discourage use. The stair repair project, meanwhile, drew a single bid, for $41,025. A contract was ready to be signed to start the work. But at an April 3 council meeting, Councilor Claude Morgan, alerted to neighborhood discontent with the action plan and moved that the item be pulled from the agenda.

Meanwhile, the $50,000 meant to pay for the master plan was a victim of budget cuts, among 16 items cut from this year’s $1.4 million capital improvement projects budget. That set the stage for Tuesday’s site walk, called to allow councilors a chance to eyeball the area. The visit was joined by about 50 residents, most of whom trailed the council back to city hall for the workshop.

Although from Morelli’s stated perspective the residents had done a 180 on support for the initial course of action, they won praise from several councilors

“I’m almost mind-boggled that the people who live in this area are not here complaining and carrying on,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher. “They’ve simply come together and said, ‘Something needs to happen and we’ll help you figure out what that is.’ So, this is really an unusual and wonderful group of people.

“But I think each one of them would agree there are some major safety issues out there,” Beecher said.

On that point, Owens McCullogh, senior vice president at the city’s contracted engineering firm, Sebago Technics, agreed. The steps, he said, are “not consistent with any building codes.”

And, asked by Councilor Kate Lewis to assess the danger of the ramp collapsing on any child who might venture beneath it, McCullogh appeared to sound a genuine alarm.

“I can’t tell you that it’ll fail tomorrow, or that it’ll fail in two years, or three years,” he said. “A lot of it will depend on the environment and the waves action. But at some point that will reach a point where it will no longer be self- supporting. It is starting to show signs that I would say indicate it’s already at a failure point now.”

McCullogh said one reason Plan A had been to fix the steps first, despite the looming ramp concern, is because that project is a fairly easy pitch to the state Department of Environmental Protection – one the town can initiate with only a so-called permit-by-rule.

Fixing the ramp however, would require permission from not only the DEP, but the Army Corp of Engineers and Maine Historic Preservation, as well as the Departments of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife and Marine Resources.

“It can be done,” McCullogh said. “We can go through the process. But it’s time and it’s a cost.”

In particular, the city would have to get special permits for disturbing dunes under the federal Natural Resources Protection Act. That’s at least partly because, when DEP visited the site last August, it determined the area under the concrete ramp had eroded enough that it has essentially reverted to a natural condition, qualifying it as a coastal wading habitat.

The news was met with nonplussed reactions from most corners.

“I’m pretty much an environmentalist person, but that seems a little extreme to me,” said Councilor Sue Henderson.

There were other difficulties, too. There is not enough room at the site to put in a ramp that meets requirements for the Americans with Disabilities Act. That seems OK Morelli said, given that there is handicapped access to the beach from the parking lot on Willow Street. However, the current ramp slopes at 35 to 40 degrees, McCullogh said, noting that he would only be willing to put in a ramp that slopes 15 degrees, in accordance with Maine Department of Conservation recommendations for boat ramps.

“The challenge would be to design the thing with a standard of care that I could defend,” he said.

The ramp, however, really cannot protrude any further onto the beach than it does now, and would have to drop two feet to meet ground level. That means that at a 15 degree slope, the ramp would have to come up through the end of Deake Street, to a starting point about 20 feet from the end of the road.

That, too, “can be done,” McCullogh said. Test borings made earlier this year showed that much of the end of Deake Street is built on fill piled on top of the natural ledge that, until the1960s, was the access point to the beach. However, running the ramp up through the fill and pavement at the required grade means it would end in front of first house on the street, owned by John McKee.

“That’s OK with me, just as long as I can access my driveway,” McKee said.

Given an option, residents who rose to speak were almost universally in favor of installing a new ramp and taking out the steps, rather than fixing the steps and leaving the ramp as an unchecked item on the city’s to-do list.

“A ramp can function as a stair, but a stair can’t function as a ramp,” Deake Street resident Ed Rowe said.

But again, the problem is cash, with no money budgeted for the ramp in the annual projects budget that will go before the council next week.

Some in the audience said the council should prioritize ramp construction over other things already approved.

“Maintaining and improving public access to the shore should be one of the most important priorities in our community,” said Deake Street resident Natalie West.

“We don’t have to design it tonight, but let’s just agree to build something that’s resilient, that will last another 50 years, at least,” Rob Sellin agreed.

In the end, the council directed Morelli to tear out the ramp and erect signs that warn visitors away from it and the deteriorating steps. A new ramp, as well as a fix to the retaining wall and steps, if those are to be repaired at all, will come when funding allows – meaning most probably not until the next fiscal year.

Still, using money on hand that had been set aside for the step repair, removal of the ramp must come as soon as possible, the council decided, even at the expense of a civil penalty.

“What is the fine for removing that ramp, since it sounds like it might collapse at any time,” Lewis asked.

“Technically, the (attorney general’s) office could initiate an enforcement action, but I doubt anything like that would happen in this case,” McCullogh said.

“I’m feeling like we need to get the current ramp out of there sooner rather than later, if we can’t repair it,” said Councilor Adrian Dowling. “It’s just unfortunate that they (ramp and steps) have gotten to a point where they are functionally inadequate and structurally deficient.”

Mayor Linda Cohen said the entire episode demonstrates why the council recently agreed to add a facilities manager to the payroll at city hall.

“Whether it’s building property or land property, somebody has got to be paying attention to that, because things are falling apart, and it shouldn’t get to the point where we have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said.

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